Improve Your Life #23: Control and Flexibility in Your Life

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Control and Flexibility in Your Life

Most people want to have some level of control in their lives. In one extreme if you just let go, you might feel that you are the victim of life happening to you. At the other end of the spectrum, trying to control everything you are bound to fail as there will always be small deviations that you can not correct for. How to improve your life by finding a balance between control and flexibility.

What is Your Current Reality?

First, you should have an understanding of reality. I will not go too deep into what reality is. For our purpose, the reality is some objective state of affairs that most people can agree upon. Reality should be detached from emotion and treated as a simple collection of facts. Some examples of questions about reality:

  • Is your weight going up or down?
  • Are you on track for that big project?
  • Is your income enough for a new home?

If you have a firm grip on reality, then you are off to a good start to influence the outcomes you wish to achieve. Reality doesn’t care what you think about it, but if you don’t care about reality, then you may end up with a lot less influence over your environment and people around you.

The Limits of Control

The next thing is to understand the limits of your control, don’t worry about the things you can’t control and focus on the things you can influence. When you realize that our sphere of influence is not only finite but actually quite small, then you can relax about the things out of your control.

As we start to exert our control, we have to understand that there are two main ways to get to the results. First, there’s the control most people directly associated with the word control. You have a plan, and you see it through step by step.

Every deviation is a source of inconvenience and a potential source of frustration. If the times are calm and the task at hand is not too complex this type of control works pretty well. A trip to a shopping mall. Cleaning your room or a house. You allow for some deviation, but in general, there’s a routine you expect to follow without a hitch. When things get more complex, this model breaks down. The model cannot cope with the myriad of variables changing the initial assumptions. Uncertainty is the weak part of the step-by-step plans and how-to guides.

This is where you think about how you want things to be. To get out of the fixed control model, it would be much more effective to focus on the result and the why of your activities. Why are you doing this? What result should your actions bring about?

Tight control is the opposite of flexibility. Combining that with a narrow comfort zone is a recipe for disaster. If you try to control everything, you lose all flexibility, and this will decrease your overall happiness in life.

Uncertainty and Flexibility

This brings us to flexibility. As long as you have the result in sight and have the meaningful why to back it up the path to the goal may vary. When looking at the situation ahead of you open and flexible thinking is the key. You will find more opportunities and different paths to achieve the goals you want. This may need more mental resources and feel less than “being in control,” but the potential for better outcomes is vastly greater.


To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer. ~~George Bernard Shaw

The flexible approach of why of the situation also makes us think in higher categories than the how of direct control mindset. Research has shown that thinking in higher categories will also increase your willpower.

When planning assume optimism bias and try to set the goals that most advance your overall wellbeing and happiness. Answer the why question first and then go into the more detailed planning of how you are going to get there. After the why, find the hows but do not limit yourself with a fixed set of tactics, remain as flexible as you can.

In the end, control is an illusion. A big part of our achievements is based on luck and favorable circumstances. On the other hand, this can also be said about our failures. We think we are rational and have control over our lives, but we can achieve that only by being more flexible in the situations that matter and can be influenced. Ignore the rest.

Here are the steps to get more influence over your life

  • get a grip on reality
  • understand why you want something
  • plan the initial how and contingency
  • be flexible, accept whatever comes
  • give it your best and improvise
  • take responsibility
  • learn from experience

Now, be water my friend.

Image: Super Crazy Dashboard by Aaron Parecki
Image: Pierre, rodeo-hole in Metz by Stefan Schmitz

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1 Response

  1. July 8, 2013

    […] trumps perfection. Life is change and perfection makes you rigid. Perspective and flexibility combined with control will help you be calm and see what is important and needs to be done. Being flexible means that you […]

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